Ancient History & Civilisation


All Roads to Messenia

Chiôn was roaming on Taygetos—right now no more than a hundred stadia away from the army, camping alone in the tall icy firs with a bright fire, hunting for Gorgos and his guard. He had come too late to ransom Nêto, and heard only that Erinna had failed to rescue her as Gorgos fled into the highlands. Chiôn now followed Gorgos in his flight to the upper reaches of Taygetos, since there was of yet no trace of Nêto back in his abandoned compound nor word of her with him in the upland. He assumed that her corpse had been either burned or buried, but he kept quiet and again promised only that he would come down the mountain with the head of Gorgos and a live Nêto by the time Mêlon arrived with Epaminondas.

For Nêto’s fate, Chiôn blamed Alkidamas, and Gastêr, and cursed the Korinthians for the foul ship and the delay with the Phokians. On arrival, he had given Nikôn all the ransom money of Malgis for his men, to keep them forging swords and fed as the helots left the farms in revolt in hopes of the arrival of Epaminondas. So now Chiôn was free of his obligations, and free to play out the finishing of Sparta to its end.

The Messenians had enough men in the valley to pursue the red-capes, but not enough mountain folk on high Taygetos, who knew the ways of woods and streams and how to live like the bear and the panther, to hunt down the packs of the fleeing Spartans and find the dead scent of Gorgos’s hideout. So Chiôn was hunting on the mountain, always on the heels of Kuniskos and his band that had left Ithômê two days before his arrival. These Spartan kryptes boasted that they were scouts of the wild who could live on berries and game and slit the throat of the wayward helot. But they had never met a true wild man, never an animal like Chiôn who felt he at last had found his proper place—not a slave, not a free man, but a wild one now, beyond the rules of the polis, yet more free than any of the city-state. He was no politês, as he once dreamed but an agrios, an ômos who did not cook his food, but instead drank the milk of the wandering goats he strangled. He forgot Pythagoras and began eating meat again, raw, on the sly among the no-man pines. Soon all mention of Chiôn of Helikon ceased in these days as the Messenians figured he had perished among the wild animals on the mountain. Indeed, the shepherds told of a new nameless, half-human beast who broke the necks of Spartans and left them dangling by the heels from their trees, tied tight with their capes, and with a red beta smeared on their bare backs.

Finally the leaky Theôris of Gastêr pulled into Koronê, the port of the Messenians. Alkidamas and Ephoros headed to Ithômê with the helot crew, both the unarmed rowers and the ten marines. Gastêr followed from the docks a half day later, cursing that he had to put his feet on dry soil. He had expected to find dock men at the port, but now had to hike over to Messenê, in a war no less, to find a new cargo, and maybe a better ship and, of course, a new crew. He soon found Nikôn. “Who’s in charge, helot? Who to deal with? I need outgoing rowers and I am the man to hire to fetch your helots from up north. Ten owls per head from anywhere along the gulf. Give me a cargo for the north, and I’ll come back here in the south with more helots.”

It was the work of the philosopher Alkidamas now to stop the killing of helot traitors who had served the Spartan. He was determined that with his Athenian helots sensible statesmen might stop the chaos and plan out the infant government of a new Messenia. “We came to find our Nêto, and Erinna, but it would have been better to stay with Epaminondas for all the good we slow-foots have done. Pitch our camp, and muster the helots here to start the building of Proxenos’s third city. We can at least show Epaminondas when he arrives that we are Hellenes of the polis, not tribesmen in hides.”

Meanwhile, Mêlon had kept quiet as the army snaked through the icy flat ground on the summit of Taygetos, going over his plans to find Nêto, or at least bury her. He hoped that Chiôn, if he lived, had found her scent, and maybe even done away with Gorgos if it had come to that, or at least paid him for her release. Finally, Mêlon turned to Epaminondas. “There will be few Spartans on this side of Taygetos, General. Our largest problem will be feeding the thousands joining here and convincing them to start on their walls as we arrive. This mob will be worse than the three armies that met up in Mantineia.”

“No,” Ainias broke in, “our task is reading the scrolls of Proxenos. He is Messenia, not the helots. Still, his plans for the city alone will not build Messenê. Somebody will have to stack the stones.” As the army marched, the captains squabbled over what to expect when they came down off the other side of the mountain, whether they were to be fighters or builders, for after the ravaging of Lakonia no one knew whether the Spartans would flee before their entry or had red-capes ranging over Messenia to stop them. On the third noon from the Eurotas, the army descended through the olive groves on the gulf of Messenia, following the road that led on to sandy Pylos. But few in the army looked that way, since all had their eyes on the cone of Ithômê that now was thirty stadia to their right, as they still chanted their slogan Eleutheria, happy to be off Taygetos. Where was the enemy? Where the Spartans? Epaminondas ordered the army to strap on their breastplates and pull their helmets down. Why no Spartans?

The wagons and pack animals slowed and brought up the rear of the column. Mêlon felt the first pangs of his aristeia in battle returning as Melissos handed him his armor, heavier in the old style than that of most, long patched and hammered flat after the blows of Leuktra—the shield, spear, helmet, breastplate, greaves, and sword of Antander his grandfather. By dusk they were coming down to the plain before Ithômê, uncertain whether Lichas himself would be barring the way with the survivors of Leuktra who had beat them over the pass. But even on the rough plain below there were no Spartans. Instead the hills were covered with plain folk in leather and rags, all calling for the Boiotians, shouting out the names of Epaminondas and Epitêles—as if it were spring Dionysia and not the cruel, cold beginning of the new year. “Look and keep your silence,” Epaminondas yelled out to his generals. “Look at the helot clan. There is not a Spartan to be seen. They did not face us in armor in Lakonia. Not now in Messenia either. The cowards over here have run home to the safe side of the Eurotas.”

The sun fell and the army of the liberators paused, as they looked down at the plains of Messenia, bathed yellow in the winter sun’s dying light. Helots dotted the spur of Ithômê. Some spilled out from Eva onto the lime-green valley below. There was the flotsam of a recent battle, corpses and weapons strewn over the ground. Ainias spotted the Spartan dead in twos and threes in the gullies and ditches beside the Lakonian road as it went up toward Taygetos. He spoke to Mêlon. “Who knows what happened? I doubt we ever get much word of it. But the end seems to have come quickly. When they heard we were on the crest of Taygetos, the Spartans just ran, and the rebellion fled after them. A house of straw, this Spartan colony of Messenia was. When Epaminondas blew, it simply collapsed in his wind.”

“Thank the god in heaven,” Pelopidas declared. “Look. Take in these hills and valleys of men, and old women, and children as well—ten ten-thousands below. If we give them stones, they will have the biggest polis in Hellas.”

Mêlon saw the same. “Not one Spartan, but likely twenty some thousands of armed helots. Where and how they came I don’t know. But someone has not been idle. Someone has planned all this. I hope there is food for us. But these locusts may well have eaten the green leaves off the olives and be living now on snails and roots. Perhaps one of them knows where my Nêto is.” He stared at every Messenian girl they passed to see if one might be his freedwoman and then called out her name in hopes strangers might know of her fate.

Nikôn had already mustered two myriads of helots to meet Alkidamas. They had begun their attacks when days earlier a runner from the east had arrived to cry out that seven ten-thousands under Epaminondas were just then burning Lakonia. At that news most of the Spartan garrisons fled. But then even more thousands of the southern helots rose up and boasted that they had cut down five hundred kryptes and had overrun Gorgos’s timber garrison beneath Ithômê. Nikôn knew that, had it not been for Alkidamas’s urging to let the Spartan jailers flee to the wilds of Taygetos, every oak in Messenia would have had a Spartan hanging upside down, tied by his heels with his cape. “We can’t build a new city by killing prisoners, or hunting down Spartans like dogs, the way they themselves did the Messenians. We are not kryptes. We will have no abyss to toss in prisoners. Free Messenia will be not just better than Sparta, but better even than free Mantineia and free Megalopolis. So let the Spartan mice scatter. We have a city of stone to build.”

The column of liberators was now surrounded on both sides by cheering helots. They threw the men bread, onions, and cheese as they passed by. Here and there they had a bound Spartan who was stripped, helot-style, shaved bald, and slapped as he was dragged through the two long lines of the beating crowd. On a few bare trees there were Spartans hanging—strung up by their own red capes and swaying in the hard north wind. Some had placards around their necks, declaring DOULOI TÔN MESSENIÔN—slaves of the Messenians. In the bedlam, Mêlon turned to Ainias and yelled over the din, “Begin the work of Proxenos. Remember, thousands to feed. Where is the genius of Alkidamas? Where is Chiôn? Time is short if we don’t want riot and murder on our hands.”

Ainias viewed all he saw with an icy heart, but he noticed far more than did his generals. “I see no starving helots, but plenty of food and markets. Someone again has been doing our work for us. Marshal these men as I did the workers at Thespiai. Tomorrow we will have Epaminondas parley with the officers and get the builders to organize the work brigades. We get the walls up—and then never have to come back.”

The next day a group of Messenians made their way to Epaminondas, who was already this first day issuing orders to mark out a camp. Thousands of the army to the rear who were still on the foothills of Taygetos would find shelter and food when they arrived in the black cold night. A fat fellow in a dirty wool cloak and hood walked up to the head of the column, with a taller dark man at his side, who had neither beard nor hair. The heavier one started, “I am Lelex. My bald friend is Tisis. Messenians we claim to be, and leaders as well. We look for Epaminondas of the Thebans, and the Argive Epitêles. These generals sent word these last months to assemble here at Ithômê. We did that. Look, thousands of us wait. Nêto of Thespiai, whatever world she is in, said that only these two can found the new capital at Messenê. And that it must be on Ithômê, here where we have assembled to build our city. Ten days ago we rushed the Spartans. When Antikrates fled last month, much of his army did, too. Lord Kuniskos was left on his own to get out with the young and old hoplites. Most of them went nowhere. Whether Kuniskos escaped into the upper forests, no one knows. But a new man-eater roams on foul Taygetos and may have him in his belly. The last few days fewer hike up the mountain as in the past—and even fewer return.”

Epitêles was sent for, back with the Argive lochoi that had camped ten stadia or more away in the middle of the column. Epaminondas laughed to these two helots. “I sent word half a year ago, expecting one thousand might meet us on Ithômê after the first of the year. But Lelex here has brought the entire folk of the Peloponnesos to the shoulders of Ithômê.”

Lelex slowly replied. “Nêto had told us there is an urn, a stash somewhere with the sacred books of the ancient hero Aristomenes who left directions how to build the city of his visions. Only she and you and Epitêles know the whereabouts of these plans. But we can’t begin raising this polis until these written prophecies are found.”

“Yes, I know,” Epaminondas answered. “Epitêles tonight when the moon rises will walk the slopes and find this sign, as Artemis has told you. Your Nikôn and Doreios will help. Then look for us tomorrow at midmorning here where we will pitch our permanent camp.”

The Argive generals under Epitêles joined Epaminondas for their late meal of garlic, dried apples, and, for the Dorians, some salted goat. As they parleyed, Ainias went out among the company commanders. “Women must cook. Make shelters as the men cut and drag the stone down the hill. We hear there are a thousand oxen and as many horse. I see they have wagons and rollers, all hidden away on the mountains and already coming down.” The more Epaminondas noted the organization, the food, the quiet here, the more he puzzled how the man-foots had routed the Spartans and made themselves so ready to start to build. He turned to Pelopidas. “This is all the work of Alkidamas. For a sophist he seems to know something about stone. He plans to drag and roll the blocks down from the quarries, right up to the walls. Our Proxenos figured that we could cut our rock on Ithômê and have the downhill walls up in three months and be home before the grain heads droop.”

Epitêles scoffed. “They’ll all loot. So we better kill the first hundred to remind the others we’re hoplites, not dancing girls. Do it the Argive way. Hang a few of ’em from that oak over there as a sign to the others. The Spartans left, and about ten thousand no-goods will come out of the shadows, wolves from the hills to butcher the sheep. They’ve been killing hoplites this year, and they won’t stop just because we’re freeing them. Whether they kill enemy Spartans, or their benefactors the Argives, they care little. Blood is blood to these waylayers. So we kill the worst of them, peace returns, and the city builds. Do it right at the very beginning and nomos, law, reigns. Else—we have another Kekyra of old, a war of everybody against everybody. Just watch. My Argives will go out tomorrow and kill the first helot they see who has a goat or pot not his own—and then a hundred more for good measure.” With that he grunted, threw on his shaggy coat, and stormed out of the tent, ordering his officers, “Help the helots who work. Kill all who won’t.”

Epaminondas let him go. “We need more brutes like that. Our Ainias counts as only one, and he needs help to bang a few heads.” Then a silence came over the meeting as all turned toward a procession of torches coming into the camp from Ithômê way. In walked priestesses, a half-dozen women in hoods, accompanied by ten or so Messenian hoplites and dancing in unison to the tune of pipes.

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